Friday, September 21, 2007

Landor's Art (& a good word for poor Southey)

[Letter from W. S. Landor to Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1856.]
My dear Sir,

Your English Traits have given me great pleasure; and they would have done so even if I had been treated by you with less favour. The short conversations we held at my Tuscan Villa were insufficient for an estimate of my character and opinions. A few of these, and only a few, of the least important, I may have modified since. Let me run briefly over them as I find them stated in your pages. Twenty-three years have not obliterated from my memory the traces of your visit, in company with that intelligent man and glorious sculptor, who was delegated to erect a statue in your capital to the tutelary genius of America. I share with him my enthusiastic love of ancient art; but I am no exclusive, as you seem to hint I am. In my hall at Fiesole there are two busts, if you remember, by two artists very unlike the ancients, and equally unlike each other; Donatello and Fiamingo; surveying them at a distance is the sorrowful countenance of Germanicus. Sculpture at the present day flourishes more than it ever did since the age of Pericles; and America is not cast into the shade by Europe. I do prefer Giovanni da Bologna to Michael Angelo, who indeed in his conceptions is sublime, but often incorrect, and sometimes extravagant, both in sculpture and painting. I confess I have no relish for his prodigious giblet pie in the Capella Sistina, known throughout the world as his Last Judgement. Grand in architecture, he was no ordinary poet, no lukewarm patriot. Deplorable, that the inheritor of his house and name is so vile a sycophant, that even the blast of Michael's trumpet could not rouse his abject soul.

I am an admirer of Pietro Perugino, and more than an admirer of Raffaelle; but I could never rank the Madonna della Seggiola among the higher of his works; I see no divinity in the child, and no such purity in the Virgin as he often expressed in her. I have given my opinion as freely on the Transfiguration. The cartoons are his noblest works: they place him as high as is Correggio in the Dome of Parma: nothing has been, or is likely to be, higher.

Among my cloud of pictures you did not observe a little Masaccio (one of his two easel-pictures) representing Saint Jerome. The idea of it is truer than Domenichino's.

The last of the Medici Grandukes, Giovanni Gaston, sent to the vicinity of Parma and Correggio an old Florentine, who was reputed to be an excellent judge of painting. He returned with several small pieces on canvas, which the painters at that time in Florence turned into ridicule, and which were immediately thrown into the Palazzo Vecchio. About a quarter of a century ago, the chambers of this Palazzo were cleared of their lumber, and I met in the Via degli Archibugieri a tailor who had two small canvases under his arms, and two others in his hands. He had given a few paoli for each; I offered him as many francesconi. He thought me a madman; an opinion which I also heard expressed as I sat under the shade of a vast old fig tree, while about twenty labourers were extirpating three or four acres of vines and olives, in order to make somewhat like a meadow before my windows. The words were "Matti sono tutti gli Inglesi, ma questo poi" . . . followed by a shrug and an aposiopesis. I acquired two more cerotti, as they had been called, painted by the same master; three I have at Bath, and three remain at my villa in Tuscany. Mr. George Wallis, who accompanied Soult in that marshal's Eclectic Review of the Spanish Galleries, pronounced them to be Correggios. What is remarkable, one is a landscape. It would indeed be strange if he, who painted better than any before or since, should have produced no greater number of works than are attributed to him by Mengs. I have seen several of which I entertain no doubt. Raffaelle is copied more easily; so perhaps is Titian, if not Giorgione. On this subject the least fallible authority is Morris More, who however could not save our National Gallery from devastation.

Curious as I was in collecting specimens of the earlier painters, I do not prefer them to the works either of their nearer successors or to those of the present day. My Domenichino, about which I doubted, has been authenticated by M. Cosveldt; my Raffaelle by M. Dennistoune, who was wrong only in believing it had been called a portrait of the painter. It is in fact the portrait of the only son of that Doni whose wife's is in the Tribuna at Florence. He died in boyhood; and the picture was long retained in his mother's family, the Strozzi, and thrown into a bedchamber of the domestics as a piece of robaccia and anticaglia.

We will now walk a little way out of the Gallery. Let me say, before we go farther, that I do not think "the Greek historians the only good ones." Davila, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Michelet, have afforded me much instruction and much delight. Gibbon is worthy of a name among the most enlightened and eloquent of the ancients. I find no fault in his language; on the contrary, I find the most exact propriety. The grave, and somewhat austere, becomes the historian of the Roman Republic; the grand, and somewhat gorgeous, finds its proper place in the palace of Byzantium. Am I indifferent to the merits of our own historians? indifferent to the merits of him who balanced with equal hand Wellington and Napoleon? No; I glory in my countryman and friend. Is it certain that I am indiscriminating in my judgement on Charron? Never have I compared him with Montaigne; but there is much of wisdom, and, what is remarkable in the earlier French authors, much of sincerity in him.

I am sorry to have "pestered you with Southey," and to have excited the inquiry, "Who is Southey?" I will answer the question. Southey is the poet who has written the most imaginative poem of any in our own times, English or Continental; such is The Curse of Kehama. Southey is the proseman who has written the purest prose; Southey is the critic the most cordial and the least invidious. Show me another, of any note, without captiousness, without arrogance, and without malignity.

Slow rises worth by poverty deprest.

But Southey raised it. . . .

[Walter Savage Landor]

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